Film Review: 'Bully' a caring look at distressing problem

Much of the documentary 'Bully' focuses on Alex, an Iowa boy who is tormented daily on the school bus.

The Weinstein Company/Associated Press

Much of the documentary "Bully" focuses on Alex, an Iowa boy who is tormented daily on the school bus.

A heartbreaking documentary about the cruelty some children inflict on those they perceive to be weak or "different," and the almost criminal ineptitude of an adult establishment that defines peer torment as "boys will be boys" hijinks, "Bully" was controversial and much-debated even before it reached theaters.

Originally, the film was rated R, for profanity. The powerful Weinstein Company, the film's distributor, launched a publicity campaign against the MPAA, condemning the ratings board for making the movie hard to see for the young age group that might benefit most from its anti-bullying message. The public pressure worked, and now "Bully," with a very few relatively meaningless trims, is in theaters with a less-restrictive PG-13 rating.

Following 5 kids and families over the course of a school year, stories include 2 families who have lost children to suicide and a mother ...

Rating: PG-13 for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language -all involving kids

Length: 94 minutes

Released: March 30, 2012 NY/LA

Director: Lee Hirsch

Writer: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen

More info and showtimes »

Even so, it's hard to imagine many underage moviegoers unaccompanied by a parent or guardian will opt to see "Bully." For a young victim, victimizer or witness, "Bully" will be an uncomfortable experience. For an adult, it's distressing and -- the filmmakers hope -- galvanzing: "Bully" is one of those action-oriented documentaries that ends with a plea for activism, and the address of an associated website (www.thebullyproject.com).

Directed and very nicely shot by Lee Hirsch, "Bully" begins with words from the still-grieving father of a 17-year-old Georgia boy. "Some kid had told him to go hang hisself," the father says. We soon learn that's just what young Tyler did.

Hirsch then introduces the stories of several other bullied youths: a 13-year-old boy called "fish face" in Sioux City, Iowa; a lesbian in Oklahoma; an honor student in Yazoo County, Miss., who pulled a gun on her harassers. The last of these is an African-American girl, which provides a bit of diversity: Otherwise, all the families appear to be relatively low-income and unsophisticated.

Is bullying really a lower-class problem? If so, is it because rich parents can afford to protect their children, or remove them from harm? Such questions aren't asked, nor does Hirsch -- whether by design or because of a lack of cooperation -- interview any bullies, or the parents of bullies.

Most of the focus is on the sweet, awkward Iowa boy Alex, whose admittedly odd appearance is perhaps due to his premature birth. Alex is hit, insulted, threatened and even strangled almost daily on the school bus, which functions as a torture chamber on wheels; Hirsch's footage here is shocking. Confronted with reports and even evidence of bullying, school officials are clueless, insincere, ineffectual and self-serving. "She politicianed us," one mom says, after a typically frustrating meeting with her son's assistant principal.

With its caring portraits of troubled young people, "Bully" almost could be a companion piece to local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox's much-lauded recent documentary, "This Is What Love in Action Looks Like," about forced "gay conversion" therapy. "Bully" is even more vexing, however, because sadism seems almost hardwired into the human system. Inevitably, "Bully" offers no easy answers, but lots of empathy.

"We're nobody," says one self-taught anti-bullying activist, the father of yet another teen suicide. "But we love each other, and we loved our son."

"Bully" opens Friday at the Malco Paradiso.

-- John Beifuss: (901) 529-2394

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